Last week, I wrote the following on my Facebook page:
Social media is a notoriously difficult place to express any of the hard, nuanced stuff in life, but I’d like to try: I’ve written or edited or collaborated on five books. I’m in the final two weeks of my sixth. So you might look at those numbers and think, “Courtney seems to be effective at doing this book writing thing. She must have something figured out.” You might be right. I might have something figured out. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not really, f-ing hard. I’m currently having fried chicken emergencies (thank goodness for Bake Sale Bettys and my honey) and losing control of my inbox and getting tough love feedback from trusted friends and battling back all the voices in my head that tell me that it was really dumb to try to write a “big idea book” when I have an almost 2-year-old (that those are for tenured professors with no caretaking responsibilities who can safely dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s and learn macroeconomics etc.). I’m pretty sure the manuscript is super uneven. I’m pretty sure I’m falling short in all kinds of important ways. But I want to read “big idea books” (and see films and hear music and…and…) from people who aren’t tenured professors with no caretaking responsibilities, and people who worry about the impact of what they’re saying and their own blind spots, so I’m going to keep writing and send an imperfect manuscript to my editor on October 15th. I want you to know that. In case you want to do something imperfect, too. I’m your eager audience, fried chicken and sticky-faced 2-year-old in tow.
What I meant to just be a sort of #realtalk blip in the steady stream of delicious meals and beautiful family portraits that one usually finds in a Facebook feed got a response that shocked me. Nearly 400 people liked it and another 91 people commented. Numbers are my least favorite form of measurement, in most cases, but, for this one, I found it fascinating that so many people were compelled to respond. It got me thinking: What is it about what I expressed that so resonated with people? Surely, in part, people are just kind and wanted to be supportive to me in a challenging moment. Thanks everyone!
There is something else here. I think it’s about the way that we so often shroud the creation of things — books, businesses, babies — in mystery. We go public when the website looks perfect, when the book has its endorsements and its authoritative author photo, when the baby has arrived, safe and sound and wrinkly. But that’s not life. That’s respectability.
Life is all the stuff that happens before those things. Life is the messy process, full of self-doubt and false starts, desperate phone calls to friends, rejection and distraction and resilience. Life is burnt toast. Life is a crying baby. Life is a credit card decline. Life is the investor that looks at you like you’re speaking a foreign language. Or worse, doesn’t look at you at all, but checks his phone every two seconds to send a clear message that you’re not his priority.
Life is a pregnancy test that breaks your heart. Life is essays that never get published. Life is miscarriage. Life is 2 a.m., the neighbor’s dog barking incessantly, anxiety filling your bedroom like a noxious gas. Life is realizing you had salad in your teeth all day. Life is seething with jealousy when you see a piece of art that you wish you had painted. Life is actually fooling yourself into thinking that none of these things happen to anyone else on a regular basis except for you.
The only thing that allows a book, much less a business or a baby, to come into existence, is for the people mired in that invisible muck of creation to hold on to some shred of belief that what they’re doing is worthwhile. That’s really, really hard, especially if you don’t look like the people that usually start businesses or write books. It’s also hard if you’ve never been up close to anyone doing these things. You simply assume that the product is the process, that the person who created that website or book had some very logical, linear way of getting it out into the world, a way that you — in your infinite foibles and messy schedule — couldn’t possibly replicate, and thus, you probably shouldn’t try in the first place.
The hypothetical author in my head has a drawer with files in it. Each one is clearly labeled with the chapters she is working on, which didn’t change from day one to day 365, when she (of course) finished her book right on time. She works on one chapter at a time — reading everything there is to read on the topic, taking copious, well-organized notes and coming up with a huge list of all the experts she wants to interview and people she wants to profile, culling it down through methodical deliberation. She does many, many interviews in perfectly quiet settings and asks all the right questions, transcribing each interview in full, looking over them many times to pick out the best bits, then plugging those into her very well made outline. The narrative unfolds seamlessly. She moves on to the next chapter. It all happens according to a timeline she set for herself in the beginning. She is very good at sticking to her own self-imposed deadlines.
Are you this woman?
If you are, don’t tell me. I’m starting to become convinced that she’s a fiction. And it’s helping me come out about my own process, which looks nothing like this. I write on my iPhone on BART in strange fragments with exclamation points that I later have a hard time discerning. What was I so excited about? I interview people while my daughter is waging a nap protest at full volume and hope they don’t hear; I usually fall in love with them so I have trouble writing with any distance. I read voraciously, but haphazardly, leaving books on airplanes, stopping after the introduction if it doesn’t grab me. I skip around from chapter to chapter as inspiration strikes. Sometimes I look back at what I’ve written and I’m truly, justifiably embarrassed. Sometimes it’s okay. Sometimes I feel like someone else wrote it. I’m convinced, quite frequently, that everything worth saying has already been said.
I say it anyway. I write anyway. I just cling to that little rope of faith that what I’m doing matters, in part because I’m doing it. I might be the source of all this imperfection, but I’m also the only me that there ever is, was, and will be. So there’s that.
That’s true of you, too. So please, please don’t let the fictional person doing whatever you’re trying to do in a much more orderly, bulletproof way stop you from making a go of it. You’re all we’ve got. Anne Lamott, as usual, says it best:
Clutter and mess show us that life is being lived…Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation… Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here.